My Life Denis F. Ellis Non haec sine numine A Series of Biographical Vignettes
The following biographicalvignette was an essay writing assignment in my class, “Autobiography for Seniors " which I took in the spring semester of 2005 at Indiana-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Our Professor, Dr. M. L. Stapleton asked each of us in the class to write a short essay, with detail and vividness, about a person, who is not a parent or spouse, but who had made a distinctive change in our lives. For this essay I have chosen an event from the early days of my professional career - and life. Dr. Stapleton was named the Chapman Distinguished Professor of English at IPFW.
...........the end of my beginning.
While a number of my senior peers were an influence in the events that took place during the period of April 9th. Through May 14th. 1951 two particular individuals were instrumental in the finale that was to have such a great influence and effect on my future. There was the man that I worked for and with for nearly ten years and then there was the man, whom I never came to know!
First, a little about this beginning. After the loss of my father, Ships Bosun, Frederick Ellis, just after the end of the Second World War, December 7th. 1945, lost to a lonely place in the North Atlantic, and to be more precise; Lat.47'.49N Long.45'.59W, the company for which my father had sailed all throughout World War ll and before, Elder Dempster Shipping Lines, committed to my mother, that when I was to finish my formal schooling in 1949 that they would see that I had an opportunity to follow in my father's footsteps, my father having first gone away to sea in 1909 when he was just a lad of fourteen years of age.
Sometime in the fall of 1948, the year before I was to complete my formal schooling my eldest sister Mary took me to meet with (Mr. Pritchard?) who was an executive officer of Elder Dempster and we met with him in the company's downtown Liverpool office, located in the India Buildings on Water Street. My sister joined me in the office with (Mr. Pritchard?) for my interview and while I could not sit down and write of the details of our conversation, of one thing we in my family are now all certain, that what took place in that office that day was, that (Mr. Pritchard?), and Elder Dempster Shipping Lines, offered me the opportunity to become an Officer Cadet with the training to take place in their Officer Cadet Training School and on board their Officer Cadet Training Ship, and that I, for whatever reason that only the Great Maker could know at that time, said, " No thank you Sir!, I want to work in a ship's kitchen, I want to be a cook!!." The conversation between myself and (Mr. Pritchard?) did not go too much further,other than (Mr. Pritchard?), and Elder Dempster, committing to making the necessary arrangements to honor my request when I had completed my formal schooling in the coming April of 1949. In reviewing this vignette with my sister, Mary, she did remind me that (Mr. Pritchard?) did offer her a position but because she had just the year before, 1947, given birth to my niece, Fredericka, she had to politely decline.
Well! When we then went outside the office to head on home, my sister did not know what to say about my turning down the offer to become and Officer Cadet, I think she was ready to flip!! Oh! My God I remember her saying, you want to be a cook Denis, were did that come from? What is Mama (our mother) going to say, as she held her head in her hand? You Denis had better go home by yourself. Well, eventually my sister and I did go home together, on the number 33 Tram-Car to Garston Village the South Liverpool Suburb where we lived. It was a long ride home! Of what happened in this immediate period following I am quite vague, I do recall that there was disappointment in my family, but somewhat short lived. I had made the decision and it was now my life to live, it was for me to go and show what I could do and what I could become. What I have come to believe about events in ones life such as this is, that there is much to be said in what we read and hear about in medical news articles and often portrayed on television that a person can somehow mentally block out events and happenings in their lives, that they would rather not want to maybe recall in a hurry, I believe that this is what happened to me regarding this short period in my life.
Elder Dempster lived up to their commitment and when I finished my formal schooling in April, of 1949, the Easter Break, I was 15 years of age, they placed me in the Nautical Training School for Ship's Cooks and Stewards which was located in Oldham Street, off Renshaw Street in downtown Liverpool. On a visit home to Liverpool in the fall of 2002 my sister, Mary, yes! the same sister Mary and her husband Phil took my wife, Marliese, and I to visit it. It was undergoing demolition! I spent six months, five days a week, seven hours a day, in the kitchens of " Dickie Bond's as it was affectionately called, for reasons I will tell at another time, and then on October 20th.1949 I passed out and graduated with my Certificate of Apprentice Cook, a copy of which I have attached to this vignette. As I was still only 15 years old with three months to go to January 1950 when I then would celebrate my sixteenth birthday and be old enough to go away to sea, the company placed me as an apprentice in a large central pastry shop, a pastry shop that prepared pastries, cakes, pasties and meat pies for a number of the company's retail shops. The name of this business was, Cousins, and as my elder brother Tony reminded me in 2005, the business was run by two cousins, named Gibson. Tony, who was a top notch Automotive Mechanic used to work on Cousin’s delivery vans when they were brought in for service to the garage where Tony had worked from when he was an apprentice. I can never forget Cousin’s location as it was located on Fleming Road which was across from the Penicillin Factory, in Speke which was the next suburb to Garston Village, where I lived. Fleming Road was named after the discoverer of penicillin, Dr.Sir Alexander Fleming.
On the 30th of January 1950, twelve days after my sixteenth birthday I signed on ( board of trade ship's articles of the sea) as a Kitchen Boy to the Elder Dempster Passenger Liner, MV Accra, I was about to set sail on my first ' trip' to a land I had known of, as young as I was, for many years, the West Coast of Africa, or to were as it was so often referred to as, " The White Man’s Grave," and to where as Rudyard Kipling so aptly phrased it, where “ Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen, go out in the Noonday Sun.”
The MV Accra, was named after the City of Accra which is the Capital City of what was then the Gold Coast, a British Commonwealth Country, but is now the independent Country of Ghana, The Accra carried 297 First Class Passengers and 24 Tourist Class Passengers and each 'trip' (voyage) sailed between Liverpool and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, and then on to Freetown in Sierra Leone, Takoradi in Ghana, and finally the Port of Apapa where we embarked and disembarked our passengers and which is across the Lagos Lagoon from the Island City of Lagos, Nigeria.
After a weekend stay in Lagos/Apapa we returned to Liverpool stopping at the same Ports. There were occasions when we also stopped in at Bathurst, which is the Port Capital of Gambia on the Island of St. Mary in the Gambia River. Also, regarding passengers, we did carry 145 “deck passengers, “very colorfully dressed, between each of the African Ports. A round trip on the Accra took five (5) weeks. I had arrived at my boyhood dream.
Over the next eighteen months I made eleven round trips to the ' West Coast ' with one particular break and that being when on the sailing day from Liverpool, July 18th. 1950, I came down with a very bad dose of fever and was rushed off the Accra and sent to Liverpool's very famous Tropical School of Medicine. After my recovery I was transferred to the sister ship of the Accra, the MV Apapa, which was named after the Port City of Apapa.
During this early period I had started my professional progression and on the 30th.of October 1950 I was promoted, though still only sixteen years old, from Kitchen Boy to Junior Assistant Cook. This was a newly created position, allowing me an increase in my wages but more importantly, greater culinary exposure. It was during this period that my senior peers started to advise me, “Ellis, don't spend the rest of your life on the “West Coast “get yourself on to the Trans-Atlantic Passenger Liners going either to the ' States ' (United) or to Canada." Their persistence towards this and me continued and as I have looked back upon this period I see that they must have recognized in my work and personal habits that I had more potential in my chosen professional career than maybe a life on the West Coast of Africa had to offer.
I consequently made the biggest single individual decision of my then very young life. Without telling my Mother, which in those days was considered a sacrilegious act, I gave my notice to my Chef and on April the 9th. 1951 on arrival in Liverpool I signed off the MV Apapa for the last time, finishing off what my father had started so many years before.
As a young boy, as it was with young boys of my time and place, I never cried, but as we sailed down the waterways and away from Lagos and Apapa and out towards the South Atlantic that last time, and as I looked out the kitchen port hole as I so often did, tears welled up in my eyes, real tears. I have never told this to my family before, so this line in this vignette is, no pun intended, an eye opener!!
We have now reached the period within which a series of events took place that would have such a positive influence and effect on my future. But! Before the wonderful finale of this all, there were to be some thirty days of H……? I first of all had to tell my mother, and while I could say that I had vague memories of this, it would be more honest of me to say that, I have a total blackout. My memory is a blank of details for much of this period of thirty days.However what happened now was that I first applied to the Cunard Line only to be told that they hire all their young apprentices and such from the Westminster School of Cookery in London, I then applied to the Canadian Pacific Steamships who told me that they did not have any apprentice positions open and that I was too young to be an assistant cook. This did not happen of course all at once but over a number of days. I then decided that I should register with the Board of Trade Shipping Pool.
It is important here that I explain this shipping pool of which there are two parts. One part is where a seaman will go in each day and register by giving them their Seaman’s Record (of discharge) Book and telling them what they would like to do and then If a like position on a ship became available their name would be called and they are then given the opportunity to go to that ship or to the company clerks office and see if they can be hired. If not you go through the same procedure every day, and these can be very long days. You do not however have to take the ship if you don't want to; it may be going where you would not like to go. The other part of the Shipping pool is a little different though, here you are guaranteed to be given a ship, with a twist, the twist being that you can refuse two ships, but! You must accept the third ship you are offered. Was it to New York you wanted to sail to Ellis? Tough luck! this one is going to China!
Each day it seemed the days were getting longer and longer, except for the Tram Car ride home to my mother, which always seemed like I just stepped on the Tram and then there I was at our front door, with, my mother waiting there for me. No ship again Denis? how many times did I hear my mother say that.In my first move of desperation, somewhat influenced as I recall by my mother, I went back to Elder Dempster to see if I could have my job back. These company shipping clerks had a notorious reputation for always wanting to show the power that they had over seaman, to put bread and butter on your plate, or to send you for a walk. This particular event I will never forget, I had arrived at the Company’s Shipping Clerk's office in the Huskisson Dock, I put my Seaman’s Record Book through the caged window opening as was the practice, this clerk looked at my book saw my name and record and said; " what are you doing here Ellis?" I would like Sir to go back on the Accra or the Apapa, I replied. “Well I'll tell you what you can do Ellis," said the clerk, "you can go and pool (shipping) your heels for another month, and then come back and we will see what we can do for you. " I was sick and about ready to cry! And I said to myself I am not going to go home and tell my mother about this, but of course I had to, and I did.
What followed next is the kind of event that would make believers out of non believers. First off after that awful experience of going back to Elder Dempster I said to myself I cannot go home once more and tell my mother I could not get a ship, I decided there and then that I was going to take my chances and ' sign on ' at the pool in order to be guaranteed a ship. Whatever Angels were in that Shipping Pool that day were surely looking down over me. I approached the caged window and offered my seaman’s record book to the clerk, and as he was l looking at it and beginning to talk to me, behind him came this very tall gentleman, and! I will always refer to this individual as a gentleman, this gentleman was so tall he actually was looking over the window towards me, and then he said; “What are you doing here Ellis?" to which I replied, somewhat sheepishly, “I need a ship Sir." “No Ellis you don't want a ship from here, you have to get yourself down the Cunard or the CP (Canadian Pacific). I replied “But Sir I have been down to both of them and they told me that they did not have anything for me". Listen Ellis said the gentleman the Empress of Scotland needs an Assistant Cook, you get yourself down there, to which I then had to tell the gentleman that I had been down to the CP and they told me that because I was only seventeen and one half years of age I was too young for their assistant cook's position.
Well, what happened next were spoken words that were to end my beginning. This gentleman said to me. “Ellis you go on down to the CP and tell them that if they will hire you for the Assistant Cook's position on the Empress of Scotland, we will approve your being under age." Who was this gentleman? How did he know my name? did he see my name over the shoulders of the Shipping Clerk? Did he know my father, which was a good likelihood? I never did get to know this gentleman's name, but he was the man whom I never did get to know, but one who played such a pivotal role in the Beginning of what was to be for me, a very successful career. What I did come to find out was that he was a National Union of Seaman Representative and it was the Union that was giving approval of my being hired into a position even though I was under age. I have retold this event of my life many times in my role as teacher and culinary instructor. As Executive Chef of the University of Notre Dame one of the Culinary Classes I taught to our staff was Culinary Supervision, when we covered the chapter on Labor Relations and Unions I would always retell this event, in order show the class one of many positive sides of Unions.
I was of course at this point not hired yet, I had to get myself down to the CP Office which was located in Gladstone Dock, where the Canadian Pacific's Empress Ships docked, and this was dock No. 100 of the one hundred docks on this seven mile stretch of docks along the River Mersey. I boarded the overhead railway at the Pier Head, as a point of interest here, the Liverpool Overhead Railway, which opened the 4th. of February 1893, ( http://www.timbosliverpool.co.uk/lor/ ) was the first Electrified Elevated Railway in the world.
The stop where I boarded was located alongside the City's Three Graces, which you can view on this web link. (http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/exhibitions/worldheritagecity/ThreeGraces.asp) The names of Liverpool’s Three Graces as you will see are; the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building, and the Port of Liverpool Building. Who of us on that day, which was approximately April the 5th. 1951, could ever believe that some fifty three years later, June 2004, the month and year that I retired from the University of Notre Dame, that these buildings and this piece of Liverpool and Merseyside Waterfront would be decreed a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, (UNESCO) to join other world heritage sites such as, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and others.
I arrived at the Gladstone Dock Canadian Pacific Clerks office, and probably more than a little nervously, handed in my Seaman’s Record Book through the caged window, at the same time explaining to the shipping employment clerk what I had been told by the Gentleman! at the pool. The shipping clerk said Okay! And gave me a slip of paper which was my official communication for me to go and meet with Chef Anthony (Tony) Duckett the Chef de Cuisine on the Empress Of Scotland. The ’ Scotland ’ was berthed along the quay adjacent to where the shipping clerk's office was located so I just had a short walk to what was become my home, and culinary inspiration, for the next six and one half years.
My meeting with Chef Duckett was, as was the protocol and practice of the time, and in somewhat definite contrast to today, kept at its respective distance. We met in the small Chef's Office in the Kitchen, which I can still pinpoint on the C Deck plans that are available on the following Empress of Scotland web site, http://www.angelfire.com/pe2/pjs1/ What did this man, Chef Duckett, see in me that I maybe had or did not see in myself, what visions did he have of me that I did not, at least yet, have of myself. I was seventeen and a half, his kitchen was full of World War Two Vets who had also been cooks before the war, and there were older and more experienced assistant cooks than me that was available, yet! Chef Duckett said to me, " Okay Ellis we will give you a go, you be here tomorrow at seven, we will be signing on (the ship's articles of the sea) then," tomorrow's date being May 14th. 1951. Chef Duckett then took me over to meet with the Fish Cook with whom I was going to be working as, Assistant Cook he was an Irishman by the name of Kevin Kenney, and who along with his close friend, and Scotsman, Vegetable Cook Billy Briscoe, were going to keep a close eye on me over the immediate and ensuing years.
I was to spend the next six and one half years on the Empress of Scotland and there is much to say about these ensuing years that will in time, hopefully, become another Biographical Vignette. I consider these years to be my most, formable culinary learning years. In 1957 the ' Beautiful White Empress ' was showing her age and the Canadian Pacific, and I believe reluctantly, sold her to the German Hamburg-Atlantic Line, who removed one of her three distinctive funnels, added tighter accommodation to be able carry more passengers, and renamed her the, Hanseatic.
Footnote The three funneled liner Empress of Scotland had been launched in 1929 as the Empress of Japan and in those days she sailed from Vancouver, Canada to Yokohama and Hong Kong for which she held the Blue Riband for the fastest time. In 1942 after the outset of hostilities with Japan, Sir Winston Churchill it was I believe, “persuaded” the Canadian Pacific to change her name, she was renamed the Empress of Scotland. There are numerous web pages of the “Scotland " one of the most beautiful of all the White Empresses and of whom it is still said of today.” She was the most Beautiful Lady ever to sail down the River Mersey."